ST. LUCIE COUNTY — A former veterinarian with the Humane Society of St. Lucie County alleges the nonprofit organization has inhumanely euthanized shelter animals, often in large quantities, over the years to save for a new building.
Sara Matthews told the county commission Tuesday shelter officials denied certain animals medical treatment, instead opting for a cheaper solution: putting them to sleep and killing them. She was supported by Linda Gregard, another veterinarian who quit after Matthews was fired.
Frank Andrews, director of the Humane Society of St. Lucie County, said the accusations are baseless and coming from a few disgruntled ex-employees.
"Our business is to treat animals well, to keep them as long as we can, to prosecute for cruelty ... to work with people," he said.
Andrews said he fired Matthews for good reason, but would not provide further detail.
Matthews, who said she worked at the organization for four years on a daily $400 stipend, said she was fired in September after requesting to have input into how and which animals should be euthanized and after discussing animal welfare concerns with Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky.
Dzadovsky confirms this conversation occurred over the phone, sometime before Matthews spoke in front of the commission. It was the first time he had heard accusations of animal abuse at the shelter, he said.
Andrews said he had no idea Matthews had spoken with Dzadovsky before firing her.
Matthews said 5,000 of the 8,000 animals taken into the shelter each year are euthanized at the facility for no other reason than there's not enough space at the shelter. She added the facility didn't make enough of an effort to get these animals homes.
"I saw horror story after horror story," Matthews said at the meeting. "Puppies being killed because they had contracted kennel cough. Young, healthy animals killed because they had been there for a while and just didn't get adopted. I saw countless dogs euthanized because they had heartworm disease and this can be cured 98 percent of the time with medicine. Dogs and cats were not given flea and tick medicine because the shelter didn't feel like they had the money to do it.
"The employees continue to physically abuse, neglect and kill these animals at a rate of 15 per day each and every day," Matthews said.
Andrews said on average for every 8,500 animals that enter the facility each year, 4,400 are euthanized. He said about 2,000 of those animals are put to sleep at the direct request of owners.
"Euthanasia numbers are not high; not high at all," he said. "I'll match that up against anyone's numbers and the numbers are going down steadily."
Euthanasia is a last resort for animals deemed "unadoptable," he said, but the organization makes every effort possible to adopt out the animals. He said there is no time limit as to how long animals can stay.
Andrews said the Society's one certified veterinarian technician and an assistant determine if an animal is adoptable and if it is euthanized.
When asked if employees set the rules and standards at the facility, he said, yes, because they're the ones who know the animals best.
The Humane Society of St. Lucie County is an independently owned and operated facility and is not governed by the Humane Society of the United States or any other entity.
Andrews said an 11-member board of directors sets policies for the organization. Although the organization claims it is nationally accredited on its website, Andrews said it is not.
Annette Miller, chairman of the board, said she's never heard allegations of animal abuse from employees.
Andrews said employees don't speak to directors because there's a chain of command. "Why would they?" he said.
Animals enter the shelter through Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County animal control, as well as from local residents who turn in their pets.
The organization has contracts with the two cities and the county and is paid for each animal it intakes.
Last budget year, St. Lucie County taxpayers paid $262,624, Port St. Lucie residents paid $235,273 and Fort Pierce residents paid $152,297 to the Humane Society. In December, the Fort Pierce City Commission will decide on a contractual flat fee of $125,000.
Andrews said the shelter's maximum occupancy is 300, and it's currently housing about 320 animals.
"We're always full," Andrews said.
Andrews said the new $2 million satellite office in Port St. Lucie will have a third of the animal shelter space, but will help to better serve local residents. He said construction on the building, which was scheduled to open in January 2012, has stalled.
The organization plans to keep its current facility, he said, when the new shelter opens.
Matthews and John Parry, former treasurer on the Society's board of directors,said plans for the new building were sealing the fate for many of the shelter's animals because all donor money was going to the new project rather